John Bird is magnificent

In October 2015, the founder of The Big Issue was elevated to the House of Peers.  He is John Bird, and in February 2016 he made his maiden speech.

In future, if anyone asks me what I do, I think I might refer them to this speech. Acquaintances, relatives, even quite close friends seem to have a vague notion that I earn my crust by polishing up people’s accents, or getting them to stand ‘correctly’ and orate. Anyone with whom I have worked on public speaking will greet such thoughts with the same wry smile, because actually I bully people into being themselves. There’s a little more to it, for instance in terms of structuring your material for optimum digestibility for your audience and optimum memorability for yourself etc., but the foundation is always being yourself.

I tear scripts out of their hands because that bloody paper is a screen between them and their audience, but also because it is a screen between them and themselves.

I repeatedly tell my trainees that the most engaging, compelling and persuasive they can be is when they are being themselves, warts and all, and speaking spontaneously.

Yes, there is such a thing as appropriateness; but once a speaker has learnt to come out from behind one of those ghastly but ubiquitous self-imposed masks, they are better equipped to steer an appropriate course while still being themselves.

Watch this speech, and see what I am talking about. For a start there’s no paper: the words he speaks are always the words that come to him at the time – genuinely spontaneous. He pushes the boundary of appropriateness by describing someone (affectionately) as a bugger; but he doesn’t sleep-walk into it because a little earlier he  correctly referred to a fellow Peer as “the noble Lady”. He knows what he is doing, makes his own policy decisions, and trusts himself to speak spontaneously.

I have had people challenging my position by stating that pre-scripting a speech enables a better choice of words and phrasing. My reply tends to refer to round objects.

Listen to Bird, shooting from the hip from his bald opening to his courteous close, and you will hear for instance an elegant and lengthy anaphora (“when I was…”) beginning at 3:40, and there are more such. You will hear very accomplished comedy timing. You will hear a wide variety of rhythm, pacing and vocal tone. You will, in short, hear an exemplary piece of public speaking: well conceived, well structured, well delivered.

Yes you will also hear stumbles, slips of the tongue, and other mistakes – but who cares? Listen to someone reading a script and you will likewise hear all those things, but they have a different, lamer, more toe-curling quality than from spontaneous speech.

The most important people at any speech are in the audience. We can hear their appreciation from time to time, but there is one who is almost constantly in view. I refer to the Noble Lady we can see over his right shoulder. I wish I knew who she was because she has a wonderfully expressive face. He can’t see her, but he has her in the palm of his proverbial hand. Never once does she doubt his sincerity.

What a magnificent speaker!

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